Áine Hand Made Chocolate: Right Recipe for Business Success
We talk tactics, taste and truffles with entrepreneur and LEO client, Ann Rudden, as she takes us on a tour of Aíne Hand Made Chocolate
Nearly half a million bars of Áine Hand Made Chocolate are made every year and the company is becoming a household name for its boxed chocolates and hot chocolate swirl sticks. Set-up by Master Chocolatier Ann Rudden in 1999, the company employs ten people and has 25 ‘Great Taste’ awards to its name. Export markets already include the UK, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Russia and the company’s on-line home can be found at www.chocolates.ie
Facts at a glance
Entrepreneur: Ann Rudden, Áine Hand Made Chocolate Ltd
Employees: 7 full-time and 3 part-time
Famous for: Branded artisan Irish chocolate for retail
Local Enterprise Office Supports: Business expansion grant, mentoring and Food Academy
Turnover: Close to €1 million
Location: Stradone Village, County Cavan
Ann – you set up the business in 1999, so what can you tell us about those early days and how it all started?
Even from the age of nine, my vision was always to own my own business. I studied bakery production and management in college and after graduation, I worked for two highly respected chocolate companies - Butlers and then Lily O’ Brien’s.
I then worked for a raw materials company in technical sales, before starting Áine Hand Made Chocolate in 1999. We employ ten people today in our chocolate factory, exporting to five countries outside of Ireland.
What were the high points and low points in those early days, when you were a start-up?
Creating my brand from scratch and working on new products and packaging were among the high points. Winning all those ‘Great Taste Awards’ in the UK, year after year, were also a great source of pride.
On the other hand, finding a bank that would back me in the early days was a big struggle. That sometimes meant not having enough cash to pay the rent because of low sales volumes or being able invest in new equipment.
In those early days, getting my products listed with supermarkets or even getting meetings with buyers was also tough. I’m glad to say that all that has turned around and we overcame all those struggles, one by one.
What was your big ‘break-through’ moment?
The biggest break-through moment for me was when we received our first high volume order from the John Lewis chain in the UK. That opened so many doors for us and was the start of our export journey.
How did the recession impact the business and how did you respond?
Our corporate client base virtually disappeared overnight and our high priced boxed chocolate was a luxury few could afford at retail level.
So, we went back to the drawing board and re-looked at all our products.
We developed a range of impulse items, such as our hot chocolate, our 100g bars and smaller gift boxes.
We redesigned our packaging, deliberately choosing more vibrant colours that would stand out on shelves more and would catch a shopper’s eye.
To help us research consumer tastes, trial new product ideas and generate cash flow, we did a lot more farmers’ markets, food shows and expos around the country.
We secured listings in supermarket chains and when it came to targeting countries for export, we avoided recession-hit markets.
Post-recession, what do you do differently in business now?
Three key things:
Firstly, we keep our retail prices at wallet-friendly price points.
Secondly, we focus more on customer care and our quality standards are the same for every production run.
Thirdly, we focus on developing staff through training. We are competing globally, so we want to achieve the best global practices possible.
Is the company benefitting from the recovery?
We are definitely starting to benefit from the recovery as consumers are spending more and prepared to spend a little more money on quality Irish-made products.
Retailers are also giving more small food producers, like us, listings. This means that individual store managers can order our products, helping us to grow our volumes.
Your Local Enterprise Office (LEO) has supported your business with grants and mentoring. Can you tell us what impact these supports have had?
Thanks to the business expansion grant from our LEO, we were able to buy new plant and equipment for the factory, which we wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.
I also got great mentors when I started my business, which meant that I was better able to understand finances and cashflow. My Local Enterprise Office are always there, ready with great advice for small business owners.
You’re also on the Food Academy programme (a partnership between the Local Enterprise Offices, SuperValu and Bord Bia) – how is that going?
After completing the Food Academy Programme, we were recently listed in a number of SuperValu stores around the country and our products are selling very well there.
Our goal is to secure national distribution with SuperValu.
You’re on track to hit €1 million in annual turnover, so are you optimistic about the future?
The economy is improving, so I am optimistic about the future. We’re noticing that consumers are spending more and becoming more aware of Irish artisan food producers.
We want to make Áine Hand Made Chocolate the number one artisan chocolate brand in Ireland.
What’s next on the business agenda for Áine Hand Made Chocolate?
We’ve made a significant investment in our website, to get a bigger share of the on-line market. So, we want to grow our direct internet sales. We also want to increase our export sales so our target in the short-term is to win an additional export customer.
What’s the best piece of advice you got about running a business?
In business, you learn something new every day and as business owners, we are allowed to make mistakes.
Ann’s Recipe for Success
Top Tips around getting the best out of your team…
“Train staff well and keep them informed around business developments.
Let them know how important their jobs are in growing the business.
Make sure that everyone working in your business knows that they are also responsible for the growth of the business.”
Our thanks to Ann for taking part and if you’d like to find out more about her business, visit www.chocolates.ie.
To see the Aine Handmade Chocolate story, watch the video highlights here